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...a fundamental element of human nature LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL
October 3, 2011 10:50 PM   Subscribe

Chomsky-Foucault Debate in 5 seconds (SLYT)
posted by cthuljew (73 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
This makes me wonder what a condensed version of Chomsky/Buckley debate would be like.
posted by pipian at 10:55 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Human Nature: Justice versus Power (Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault, 1971)

The original clip
posted by KokuRyu at 10:56 PM on October 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


TL;DW.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 10:58 PM on October 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Can I have the Wendy Carlos music without either of these people?
posted by Nomyte at 10:59 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


The YT comments on the "original clip" are pretty neat.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:00 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I LOLed (sic) but will be astonished if this post withstands moderation come morning.

That said: BIO-POWER(S) ACTIVATE.
posted by joe lisboa at 11:02 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


joe lisboa: I dunno. I was debating posting it, but I've watched it every few hours since I was linked to it and laughed more each time. I hope it survives.
posted by cthuljew at 11:07 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Could somebody who knows their Chomsky point out the best one of his books / articles I could read to learn more about how he defines / uses "creativity" and "the creative urge"?
posted by Apropos of Something at 11:17 PM on October 3, 2011


God I was just having a debate about Chomsky the other night.

The thing was, I've hated him for so long that I've grown so accustomed to reading whatever he writes now and finding easy ways to dismiss it as garbage (and it's never been difficult) that I couldn't remember examples. Beyond, you know, the bullshit about how apes couldn't comprehend language, which he treated with all the scientific vigor of a man who was certain he was right and whose ego couldn't withstand a mountain of evidence against him.

That said, I finally learned about universal grammar theory, and have a bit more of a respect for the man. But I still can't trust anything he says beyond hearing it as "I'm the smartest person you've ever met and if you don't agree I'm putting my fingers in my own ears because I'm so smart."

And I agree that he's smart. I just don't think that he's in anyway scientific and I think he poses as an intellectual.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:48 PM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Navelgazer, just curious, what is some "scientific evidence" that apes can understand language that Chomsky has dismissed, because I've either dismissed it or missed it. (I think Chomsky may have gone to far at looking for (and finding) innate abilities, I think his politics is optimistic, I think he he knows how fucking smart he is too (If you've seen the series, you will notice Foulcault has to try to diminish Chomsky, but Chomsky doesn't do that to the genius on the stage with him.) I've never though Chomsky did not look far enough for the clues to language acquisition
posted by Webnym at 12:17 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Apes have been taught sign language and proceeded to teach it to their children.
posted by LogicalDash at 12:18 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Apes have been taught sign language and proceeded to teach it to their children.

Apes have been taught gestures. It's entirely unclear that they've been taught language - they don't have a consistent syntax, they don't demonstrate recursivity, and even those instances of communication that have been called language-like are the result of cherry-picking the best examples and ignoring a multitude of errors and mis-productions. Passing down non-linguistic communicative skills is not something novel.

I don't believe that it's impossible that animals may have language capabilities, and that someday we'll have evidence of it. But I'm skeptical, and we certainly haven't seen it so far.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 12:22 AM on October 4, 2011 [13 favorites]


Are gorillas using sign language really communicating with humans? [The Straight Dope]
posted by jet_manifesto at 12:24 AM on October 4, 2011


> Apes have been taught sign language and proceeded to teach it to their children.

Nope. Apes have been taught to use a few signs in a reasonably creative way. Part of the difficulty of arguing this as if it were a case of yea or nea is that we do not all agree on what it is to have a language. ALmost all linguists will agree, however, that language in its full blown form is uniquely human. You don't have to agree with Chomsky to think this.

Chomsky (and others) have more recently contributed to this debate by suggesting that the heart and soul of human language is recursion (structures, like sentences, that contain structures, like sentences, within them). The many many other attributes of language he is happy to concede may be found in animals in some form or another. That strong claim coincided with the claim by Dan Everett that the Piraha (an Amazonian tribe) speak a language that does not have recursion. There has been much embarrassed shoe shuffling since.
posted by stonepharisee at 12:28 AM on October 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


In this case, what I'm referring to is an ex-girlfriend of mine, who studied primatology and anthropology, and in her research had a conversation with an ape who had learned sign language from his adoptive mother and not from any humans. Experiments based on Chomsky's claims (such as the Nim Chimpsky trials) were biased from the start towards proving the negative.

And I'd argue that recursion is his way of retreating his argument up its own ass. "Well, they can do this, but they can't do this other deeper thing." He's entrenched in his opinion and splitting hairs to hold on to his point.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:33 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


And again, I'm not denying his brilliance. I'm just denying his scientific acumen or claim to intellectualism. I think he has a full-blown religious devotion to his own ideas, and will work his ass off to deny anything which comes in conflict with them, no matter how factual or well-reasoned it is.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:38 AM on October 4, 2011


Can I have the Wendy Carlos music without either of these people?


Yes. Yes, you can, if you don't mind hearing other folks doing it (and they're all pretty good, really).

The original, even!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:38 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh, and here's the Wendy Carlos. So good.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:42 AM on October 4, 2011


Everyone has jumped on my challenge and made it easy for me.

Yeah, making a motion and getting a reward, and then making it again is a long, long, long way from language. And that is the closest that we can really establish that apes have ever gotten to language.

I had a golden retriever once that could tell me the square root of twenty-five, or three plus two, or twenty-four divided by six. (I didn't like going over seven because he seemed to get hoarse). I really don't know how he did it, but i'm don't believe he did math or was psychic; he could only do it at a sit-stay looking at me. I can't tell you what clues I was giving him, and if I had had more at stake than grins of friends, maybe I'd have had more belief. I think the people that tell you they taught an ape, have a lot at stake, and even some of there assistance have always been more honest (Or read more Chomsky).
posted by Webnym at 12:43 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


From what I could glean from the excerpts, Choms believes that there are fundamental human concepts and conceits an individual would hold regardless of their place and position in society. He is young here and is even more ambitious to think that a list of concepts and conceits could be found to construct a universal image, and that image could be used to form better systems and institutions. The other focca is older and not so ambitious and doubts there are universalities much less a universal image and it's our postion and rank that forms our conceptual interests in justice and other abstract conceits.

When they screw with apes by giving one ape a banana and the other ape a rock, I'm pretty sure a concept of unfairness is felt by one ape. What happens next aka Justice really does depend on the rank of the animal who didn't get the banana. So conceit of justice is fluid but the concept of fairness is inherent.

So both talking chimps are right in their own ways.
posted by vicx at 12:49 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is this something I'd have to read all of Foucalt and Chomsky to understand? : )

Is the joke that Chomsky had the weaker position in this debate and so we're laughing at him?
posted by memebake at 12:51 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Interesting, I hadn't known about the recursion assertion or the Pirahã, thanks stonepharisee (edge.org).
posted by jeffburdges at 1:07 AM on October 4, 2011


memebake: My take was that the joke was that these five seconds pretty much exactly capture the nature of the disagreement between structuralists and whatever-it-is-that-Chomsky-is-ists.
posted by cthuljew at 1:11 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am a linguist and I worked with Koko the sign language gorilla for one summer a few years ago. She has language. I wrote a little bit about that experience on MetaFilter a while ago, here.

I think we tend to overestimate what we are capable of as humans, underestimate the abilities of our fellow animals, and move the ball a lot on our definition of language. That's all ok, it is what is and there's reasons for the glorification and division. But even by the strictest, most human-centric, rules-based definition of language, it's still massively impressive what Koko can tell us.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:13 AM on October 4, 2011 [10 favorites]


Yeah, iamkimiam, what I'm seeing from the arguments against non-suman primate language capacity here is basically "nuh-uh! Chomsky said no."

Apes who learn sign language have passed it on to other apes and converse with it themselves. This isn't hypothesis anymore.

Anti-intellectualism is ugly, no matter how "smart" the proponent.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:19 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


A priori, I'd imagine that human language has shaped human biology, more than the other way around, which yields two conjectures :

- The Pirahã language didn't necessarily always lack recursion, more likely they simply abandoned it. You know, viruses aren't our ancestors, they're simply cells that evolved to be simpler.

- If you teach a chimp tribe sign language, make the language rather important to them, and given them tens of thousands of years, then you'll probably find them evolving even more surprisingly human like behavior and culture. In particular, recursion might become integral to their language.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:20 AM on October 4, 2011


I know explaining a joke has the potential for making it less funny, but what are the requirements, if any, for "getting" this?

If it comes up at a cocktail party, I want to LOL and mean it.
posted by chillmost at 1:29 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


ok i don't get it
posted by zardoz at 1:46 AM on October 4, 2011


The Chomsky Hash.
posted by artof.mulata at 1:48 AM on October 4, 2011


Yeah, iamkimiam, what I'm seeing from the arguments against non-suman primate language capacity here is basically "nuh-uh! Chomsky said no."

The argument is that just that if animals were capable of communicating in a language that displays semantic compositionality, hierarchy, and recursion, we should expect to find some unambiguous instances of such languages, but no one in the literature has offered any. (iamkimiam's story shows that Koko is really psychologically sophisticated, but I don't really see anything there that suggests her method of communication has a compositional semantics and syntax. Did you come across anything like that, iamkimiam?)

I find that pretty compelling, myself, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are a whole bunch of examples that I'm unaware of.

(Part of the debate here might just be over whether Koko's abilities should count as a language even if they don't display hierarchical and recursive features. If you think of a language in a very permissive way---for instance, as a function from symbols to meanings or truth conditions---then of course Koko is using a language to communicate. But given that Chomsky is a syntactician who made a career exploring the structure of human natural language, and that he fended off the behaviorists by appealing to this structure, it's no surprise that he would think the structural elements are the most theoretically interesting elements, and that he would would want to reserve the term 'language' for communication systems with those features. In any case, this is just a terminological dispute.)
posted by painquale at 1:48 AM on October 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


Mr. Navelgazer, I can direct you to several studies on the syntax of crows, and of lots of other birds...and of apes. I can show you studies on the semantics of Bees and elephants. Linguistics admits the elements of language among animals. That is not the same as language, and 'this girl i slept with once said" is not evidence.

Not all linguists agree with Chomsky about much these days, but his real field of interest has been overtaken bu psycho-linguistics and (just as much by) neurophychology, but that doesn't make him an anti-intellectual, does it?

It is so easy to throw names at people with whom you disagree, and you do it so well, but you don't really have any information to back up your assertions (except this girl you once knew who worked with....), do you? Evidence, you are making the assertion, show evidence, please. And something beyond, "this woman that trained Koko said....", because that doesn't cut it, but is the best you will find establishing any ape (and Nim was very much not an "attempt to disprove" apes could talk!) has language.

But please, please don't use "anti-intellectualism" as an attack on those that won't accept your unsupported arguments. That is just absolute crap, and I suspect you know it. Being intellectual doesn't mean all that you want to believe is true; gawd, how I wish it did, but I still remain reality based and can not think that way. \

If you want to persist in thinking that way and using that argument, I'm sure Rick Perry can find you a job somewhere.
posted by Webnym at 2:00 AM on October 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


The semantics, yes, most definitely. She would compound words and make new meanings. There was already another Kim at The Gorilla Foundation at the time, so she came up with a new name for me based on semantic associations she'd made (seeing my tattoos and smelling the residual perfume in my clothes). But there are countless other things and this can be witnessed in many of the YouTube videos out there.

The syntax is not so complex, but I wouldn't worry about that too much. Many languages don't bother with it either, conveying what is needed through other means and channels.

When there's a problem with ambiguity or word order, it gets worked out. Koko is clever and uses the resources she has to convey the meaning. Meaning, she's communicating. I call that language, but many others who go by a checklist of parameters probably wouldn't.

It gets interesting when you think about computer languages (C++, Perl, etc.) or constructed languages (Klingon, Nav'i, etc.). Many of them fulfill the checklist, but fail at what Koko is clearly capable of. Again, shifting definition of 'language'.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:14 AM on October 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


Webnym, your approach is rather harsh, condescending and not really helpful in furthering your argument.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:16 AM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


So you guys are getting on top of Chomsky-related linguistic debates in the thread right now -- that's cool, but let me just talk about why I love this video.

I love this video because it's a YouTube parody video, but it actually tells the story of the whole debate.

Chomsky's whole thing in this debate is, "Let me tell you about human desires for a good life, because it seems like human civilizations generally want the same thing." Foucault's whole thing in this debate is, "But I think what we think are fundamental desires are actually constructions mediated by institutions which are driven by the centres of power."

That's it. That's all. There's some good footage of the two talking past each other, and rewording their arguments, and offering some examples and consequences, but in terms of idea, that's the core of the debate.

If only I'd seen this video a few years ago, before I watched the whole debate. It would've freed up a half-hour for pinball.
posted by liminalrampaste at 2:23 AM on October 4, 2011 [18 favorites]


iamkimiam: "Webnym, your approach is rather harsh, condescending and not really helpful in furthering your argument."

You are right, but it's very late at night here, and I get this insomnia thing going at times and, though I know I am no intellectual, I work hard at passing as an autodidact, and it pisses me off when some people call me anti-intellectual with out the attempt to learn the field (happens a lot in climatology these days). Don't worry, iamk, I'm leaving.
posted by Webnym at 2:28 AM on October 4, 2011


I dunno, I get pretty sick of this "Chomsky sucks because I say so," it's the same thing that crops up in every thread that dares to link to Glenn Greenwald, or Naomi Klein, etc. Oh jeez they flogged a book once, so now they can't possibly have anything legitimate to say about anything, and how dare you discuss them as if they are a real person with real ideas.
posted by mek at 2:31 AM on October 4, 2011


This anarcho-syndicalist node has the power to LOL but wasn't feeling the LOLidarity.
posted by vicx at 2:33 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Re, "what is the joke?" My take on it is something like, Here we are to debate a concept that is being pinned to the idea of a basic/innate 'human nature,' which you and I both know is neither quantifiable or isolable, but let's do this thing anyway, and wrap our pet social theories around that abstraction, because we are the dudes who do that and that's what we do, hahaha.
posted by taz at 2:39 AM on October 4, 2011


taz: That certainly represents Foucault's goal, but is just as certainly not Chomsky's. Chomsky (and, admittedly, myself) is fully in favour of assuming a certain set of human universal values, and trying to figure out how best to arrange society so as to support and express them. Foucault's consideration is that both the assumption and the attempt at expression are grounded in institutionalized power, and that assuming anything of the sort would just lead us back to coercive power relations. Chomsky thinks Foucault takes this too far, and that there are in fact human universals that we can assume without risking such coercive arrangements. On the ideological front, however, it really does come down to "fundamental element of human nature"/"what? no such thing! lolololol".
posted by cthuljew at 2:55 AM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Foucault's consideration is that both the assumption and the attempt at expression are grounded in institutionalized power, and that assuming anything of the sort would just lead us back to coercive power relations.

tl;dr: LOLFoucault
posted by FrauMaschine at 3:47 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Koko is clever and uses the resources she has to convey the meaning. Meaning, she's communicating. I call that language, but many others who go by a checklist of parameters probably wouldn't.
Communication is not quite the same as language. I can communicate with a look or a squirt of perfume, but no one would argue that this is language.

But since you've worked with Koko, I'm interested. One of the criticisms of ape-language studies is that humans are eager to interpret any gesture as a sign. Did you have any controls in place to make sure the signs were not just the product of experimenter bias?
posted by fontor at 3:50 AM on October 4, 2011


Needs more Derrida buttering toast.
posted by Fizz at 4:31 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I see your point fontor and agree with you. I lumped the two concepts together, which I really shouldn't have. If I have more time later (I'm in a crunch on a deadline these days) I'll pop back in and share some more about what I learned there and why I'd make a case for Koko having language (albeit somewhere on a continuum, not the full-blown version of language that many of us would define as used by humans only). As for experimenter bias...I'm not in a good position to comment on or share my thoughts about how research was done there, but I can say that the research was and is secondary to the care of the gorillas and the goal to raise awareness about their endangerment.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:47 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Apes who learn sign language have passed it on to other apes and converse with it themselves. This isn't hypothesis anymore.

It's not even an observed fact, let alone a hypothesis and no amount of labeling it "conversing" makes it so.
posted by DU at 4:48 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


One of the criticisms of ape-language studies is that humans are eager to interpret any gesture as a sign. Did you have any controls in place to make sure the signs were not just the product of experimenter bias?

If anything, the research using sign language is not as robust/promising than the work which has been done using a lexigram board. Gorillas are not the greatest exemplars of nonhuman primate linguistic skill. Chimpanzees aren't, either. That title goes to bonobos.

Attempts were made to teach a wild-caught adult female bonobo, Matata, how to point to lexigrams on a board. She never got very good at it, nor did she seem to care. However, her adopted infant Kanzi tagged along with her and picked up the use of lexigrams -- without direct reward or instruction from the experimenters. Kanzi's younger sister Panbanisha also grew up surrounded by the use of lexigrams, and learned them as a "native speaker," like Kanzi.

Kanzi both understands and employs word order to form distinct statements. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, the researcher who has studied Kanzi for 30 years or so, has written extensively about the controls which she and other scientists have designed into their experiments. This is a good book about the subject.

When experimentally testing Kanzi's abilities, experimenters wear welding masks. There is plenty of video of these experiments being done. They show that Kanzi understands the difference between "put the soap on the ball" and "put the ball on the soap."

There are a variety of possible evolutionary explanations as to why bonobos get much better at language-like skills than do chimpanzees. Bonobos are more likely to engage in food sharing, and some of Savage-Rumbaugh's experiments have shown a connection between food sharing behaviors and the need for complex communication. Savage-Rumbaugh also published a paper which suggested that wild bonobos may leave deliberate "trail markings" to guide other groups to a feeding site.

As for the skill of humanlike syntax, exposure during infancy is the key. This is true for human children, too. While the cases of "feral children" are sparse and always involve scenarios of abuse, one thing linguists seem to know is that if a child doesn't learn language during the first few years of life, he/she may never be able to learn it later in childhood, let alone as an adult.

This crucial period of language exposure is exaggerated in human children, who are essentially all born prematurely compared to our closest primate relatives. A compromise was made between the size of the infant's head and the width of the mother's pelvis, but a newborn baby is almost like an ex utero fetus, still developing rapidly -- and now, crucially, developing in a language-rich environment. Infant primates are born too "finished" to have such a long window during which language exposure could shape their brains. (This fact, of course, is in addition to the genetic limitations of their species).
posted by overeducated_alligator at 5:08 AM on October 4, 2011 [16 favorites]


That was not five seconds.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:19 AM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's interesting that you say "now, crucially, developing in a language-rich environment". There is evidence that language-learning actually starts in the womb, and that newborns are able to distinguish linguistic from non-linguistic sounds. It might be an element in the evolution of human intelligence that we vocalize our language, and therefore can start learning it that early (this is, of course, blatant speculation on my part).
posted by cthuljew at 5:19 AM on October 4, 2011


Now I really want to go find a copy of Perpetual Light (an old anthology) with "The Pope of the Chimps." (By Robert Silverberg)
posted by ES Mom at 6:23 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


If command of syntax and arbitrary-depth recursion is required for a being to speak "language" then I've met quite a number of humans who do not, though we could understand one another.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:34 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


pipian: "This makes me wonder what a condensed version of Chomsky/Buckley debate would be like."

POW! Right in the kisser.
posted by symbioid at 6:46 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Been searching, but can't find the link... I read recently something about how animals actually may have different "cultures" - different populations of animals such as chimps and gorillas have different "dialects".
posted by KokuRyu at 6:52 AM on October 4, 2011


If command of syntax and arbitrary-depth recursion is required for a being to speak "language" then I've met quite a number of humans who do not, though we could understand one another.

All humans have a command of syntax, just from the fact that they can speak a human language.

Arbitrary-depth recursion should be possible in theory, but in practice, most humans aren't good at depths greater than 3 levels.
posted by fontor at 6:55 AM on October 4, 2011


Can someone explain the joke. Lots of Youtube comments saying it was really funny. Some mention of music from A Clockwork Orange which might be part of the joke.

I have no idea what taz just said.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:05 AM on October 4, 2011


All humans have a command of syntax, just from the fact that they can speak a human language.

Either this is tautological, or Koko can speak a human language. She can communicate with humans just fine and she's using signs that humans made up. If that doesn't count as "human language" with "syntax" then you have to come up with some other definition of syntax; or else you've got to admit that either some humans don't have it, or Koko does.

Or just define language as something that only humans can use. You know, whatever.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:33 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Understanding recursion is not a uniquely human ability; that ship has sailed.
posted by IjonTichy at 7:33 AM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


uncanny hengeman: Okay, so Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault have this big, mega-famous debate known as the "The Chomsky-Foucault Debate On Human Nature," and as cthuljew says above On the ideological front, however, it really does come down to "fundamental element of human nature"/"what? no such thing! lolololol

That's basically the jist that I'm getting... about Clockwork Orange, I don't know!
posted by taz at 7:37 AM on October 4, 2011


Understanding recursion is not a uniquely human ability; that ship has sailed.

Super interesting link! Thanks for sharing.
posted by painquale at 7:39 AM on October 4, 2011


...then you'll probably find them evolving even more surprisingly human like behavior and culture. In particular, recursion might become integral to their language.

Ummm, could be, but not necessary.... We just don't know enough about driving forces.

Yes, the recursion link is very interesting. Don't know enough to comment on it.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:52 AM on October 4, 2011


Might be too late, but as for the music, one of the oft-cited themes of Clockwork Orange is something like "the limits of the technical manipulation of moral agency and the resilience of human nature." Foucault, in other words, is supposed to represent the Ludovico technique, whereas Chomsky is supposed to represent, alternately, the bouncing naked women at the end of the movie and the "lost" 21st chapter of the novel.
posted by flechsig at 9:03 AM on October 4, 2011


My take: I think that the 'joke' being made here (through video editing) is that "the fundamental element of human nature" = laughter. It's a universal. It's as if Chomsky just told a joke (he says something, and then the audience laughs). This plays with notions of the signified and signifier, in that there's a meta-referentiality going on in the 'telling of the joke'. This is what Chomsky and Foucault were arguing about I believe (well, universals at least) ... forgive me, but I've never actually sat through the whole debate.

Also, if I'm interpreting this correctly, this post is a joke. A meta-joke. On MetaFilter. Oh, the recursivity!
posted by iamkimiam at 9:15 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh yeah? Well, let me ask you something: what does recursion even look like?
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 9:48 AM on October 4, 2011


recursion: a property of an item that is characterized by recursion
posted by LogicalDash at 10:00 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Whenever I hear the 'can apes use language?' question, I imagine of a bunch of dolphins discussing 'can humans swim?'

'I mean, sure,' say the dolphins, 'humans can move through water and prevent themselves from drowning. But the way we move through water is so much more natural, and we're so much better at it, that it seems like a totally different activity. I hesitate to even use the term 'swim' to describe what humans are doing.'

Likewise, apes can communicate. But the way we communicate (using tricks like recursivity and phrase structure) is so much more powerful, and so much more natural to us (in that every human being, from any culture, regardless of formal education, can do it) that it seems like a qualitatively different activity.
posted by molybdenum at 10:06 AM on October 4, 2011 [11 favorites]


Recursion (n), see: Recursion.
posted by cthuljew at 11:08 AM on October 4, 2011


I haven't been keeping up on the uniqueness of human language debate. I got out of active linguistics research in 2006. But the sense I'm getting from the thread is that at least some people feel the debate ended with recursion. There's a lot more to it than that. Here's Pinker and Jackdoff's (2005) reply to Hauser Chomsky and Fitch's (2002) recursion claim.
posted by yeolcoatl at 11:39 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Many people dispute that there is such a thing as being "fundamental to human nature". But then, people are like that.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:17 PM on October 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


Many people dispute that there is such a thing as being "fundamental to human nature". But then, people are like that.

I will concede that this is an interesting and worthwhile position as soon as someone shows me a human who lays eggs.
posted by IjonTichy at 1:00 PM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I will concede that this is an interesting and worthwhile position as soon as someone shows me a human who lays eggs.

Human nature != human biology. (Unless human nature = human biology.)
posted by The Bellman at 1:54 PM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Human nature != human biology.

That's true! But human nature does equal genotype + interaction with environment, and so there is an invariant component that people share. Including the inability to lay eggs.

Of course, if people define human nature as something else besides genotype + interaction with environment, that's another matter. That said, if those same people then argue that no shared "human nature" exists, well, that seems like an odd intellectual exercise to me.
posted by IjonTichy at 2:44 PM on October 4, 2011


fundamental != invariant. That is, no human lays eggs, but to say that "not laying eggs is fundamental to human nature" is a pretty uninteresting application of the word fundamental. You could have a conversation about it and for some definition of fundamental it's even true. But it's not the conversation Chomsky was having with Foucault and nobody's really interested in disputing it as far as I know.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:21 PM on October 4, 2011


This, of course, alludes to you: "Oh yeah? Well, let me ask you something: what does recursion even look like?"

Ask Mandelbrot.
posted by symbioid at 3:55 PM on October 4, 2011


Civil_Disobedient:That was not five seconds.

Yes it was.
posted by Twang at 6:48 PM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry, I'm not allowed to argue.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 12:22 AM on October 5, 2011


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